Harry Truman was a modest man from a humble upbringing who served his country in war and peace. In other words, the anti-Trump. Thus it is no surprise that when he addressed the conference that founded the United Nations in 1945, his message was pretty much the opposite of what his bombastic successor Donald Trump said at the U.N.General Assembly on Tuesday.
Truman’s speech in San Francisco was all about the need for countries to curb their exercise of self-interest for the greater good of mankind. He urged the assembled delegates to act on the “lessons of military and economic cooperation” learned during World War II by creating a “great instrument for peace and security and human progress.” He warned U.N. members against using their power “selfishly — for the advantage of any one nation or any small group of nations.”
“We all have to recognize — no matter how great our strength — that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please…” Truman said. “If any nation would keep security for itself, it must be ready and willing to share security with all. That is the price which each nation will have to pay for world peace.”
Truman’s words laid the foundation for the liberal post-war order underwritten by the U.S. Rather than pursuing America’s narrow self-interest, the Greatest Generation chose to help defeated enemies and devastated allies, sending generous aid via the Marshall Plan and creating lasting institutions like NATO and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (forerunner of the World Trade Organization) to promote prosperity and security for all.
Truman and his aides would have been appalled if they had lived long enough to see Trump preening before the U.N. General Assembly, praising national sovereignty as the greatest good in the world, while threatening war and warning that “major portions of the world … are going to hell.”
“Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens, to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights and to defend their values,” Trump said. “As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.”
The Trump Doctrine is selfishness squared. Just as Trump has never done anything in his life that did not benefit him personally, so he cannot imagine any nation acting for the general good. In his private life, it’s me first. In his foreign policy, it’s America First.
Trump abjured any desire to address human-rights abuses abroad. “In America,” he said, “we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to watch.”
That would come as news to the Truman administration, which successfully imposed “our way of life” on Italy, Germany, and Japan, turning them from hostile dictatorships into friendly democracies.
Having spent the first part of his speech preaching a non-judgmental, non-interventionist foreign policy, Trump then upended that message by vowing to intervene against Iran and North Korea. Coherence has never been his strong suit.
“Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” he said, using a juvenile (and not unflattering) nickname for the dictator of North Korea, whose country he threatened to “totally destroy.”
Then it was Iran’s turn, with Trump demanding that its “government must stop supporting terrorists, begin serving its own people and respect the sovereign rights of its neighbors,” while hinting he would abrogate the nuclear deal even though there is no evidence that Iran has violated its terms.
And onto Syria and “the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad,” whose actions “shock the conscience of every decent person,” and the “socialist dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro,” which has “inflicted terrible pain and suffering on the good people of” Venezuela.
It did not occur to Trump that Kim Jong-un, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Assad, Maduro and other dictators are all pursuing the same kind of “me first” policy that he advocates. They are committing atrocities and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction precisely in order to protect their “sovereignty,” as they define it. And Trump’s bellicose speech will only convince them that they are right to do so, because it reinforced the widespread impression that he is a war-mongering madman.
Trump may think that his bullying and swaggering will win respect for himself and his country, but he is wrong. As public opinion polls show, respect for America abroad has plummeted. Foreign leaders don’t even take Trump’s threats seriously: North Korea has conducted three missile tests and a massive nuclear test since he threatened “fire and fury” on Aug. 8.
Truman, who dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, clearly was not afraid to stand up to America’s enemies. But he did not believe in empty threats, and he knew the importance of alliances. He made America trusted and respected, because he did not seek to take full advantage of its power. Other nations, in turn, were willing to curb their own demands for sovereignty — by, for example, hosting U.S. troops on their soil — for the greater good. The system of collective security that Truman created grew out of one world war and prevented the outbreak of another. It is now in serious danger of dismantlement at Trump’s reckless hands.